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Book Review: Today Will be Different by Maria Semple

Buying a new book is kind of like going on a blind date. You judge them by how they look, you read their profile to see if you find them interesting, and you listen to other people say good things about them. Then you go on a date; get to know them. Sometimes you find them perfect at first glance, only to realise it’s all a flashy front. Other times they might leave a bad first impression, but you find more and more things to like about them as you go along.

There are also those that you just can’t quite bring yourself to like from start to finish – not because they’re bad, mind you – but simply because you don’t quite gel with them.

Sadly, for me, this was Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different.

It has been awhile since I did reading of any kind (blame it on electronics and my super short attention span these days), so this was a double let-down. I had very much wanted my first foray back into reading to be a good one. Today Will Be Different seemed to have held so much promise, from the bright orange cover and the “100 Notable Books” stamp on the bottom right of its sleeve, to the heaping praise on its back and in the first five pages of the novel (“Hilarious, heartwarming” – Dana Getz, Entertainment Weekly; “Deliciously mucky mayhem” – Alexis Burling, San Francisco Chronicle). Oh, and apparently Maria Semple is a writer of renown, having written the critically acclaimed “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” (which I haven’t’ read. It was made into a film starring Cate Blanchett).

It wasn’t as if Maria didn’t warn the reader though. The protaganist herself, Eleanor Flood, does it in the opening: “You’re trying to figure out, why the agita surrounding one normal day of white people problems?” Not being white, nor raised in the West, I found it difficult to relate to any of the characters in the book – which is perhaps the main problem. I am not the book’s target audience, which I assume to be other white women, like Eleanor herself.

Now, if I had heeded this warning, I might have saved myself three nights of reading, and spent it with another book. But by the time I realised I wasn’t going to like this one, I was in too deep to give up. (The irony is that in the book, Eleanor is basically faced with a similar situation with her ‘friend’ Sydney, whom she can’t stand because the latter is ‘boring’, but can’t bring herself to cut off because she’s already invested and it would be rude and mean.)

SYNOPSIS

Eleanor Flood was once a high-flying animation director in New York, before she left her job to settle down in Seattle with her husband Joe, a hand surgeon of renown. The pair now live with their eight-year-old son Timby (spelled with a B, because rich white people have to give their children quirky names like Audio Science and Bear Blaze) and a pet dog, Yo-Yo.

The entire novel takes place within the span of a day and opens with a proclamation of sorts by Eleanor, that “Today will be different”, followed by a list of small, positive what-have-yous you often find in self-help books, like “no swearing”, “be my best self” and “attend yoga”. Of course, the day will be different: just not in the way Eleanor imagines it to be. Things start off well enough; she sees the husband off to work, drops Timby off at school and meets her poetry teacher for her regular poetry recitation – through it all, readers are given bits and pieces on Eleanor: how she used to be the animation director for Looper Wash, a popular animation series, and how she’s now working on a project called Flood Girls, a personal memoir about her life growing up with an alcoholic father, for a publisher.

Eleanor’s charming day starts to spiral out of control when Timby calls in sick from school, and she has to drive him to the doctor’s. Stopping by her husband’s office, only to be told by unsuspecting staff that he’s on vacation, Eleanor goes on a manic quest to find the whereabouts of her husband, and in the process, spiral completely out of control. A chance encounter with an old acquaintance dredges up ugly family secrets and past hurts, mostly revolving around Eleanor’s estranged sister Ivy. And like a typhoon on a warpath, Eleanor descends into a manic state of chaos, dragging her poor son along as she tries to deal with the hurt and betrayal of her past, her insecurities and her fear that Joe might be cheating on her.

VERDICT

I did not know wtf was going on throughout most of the book. Okay, maybe I did, but like Eleanor, it was so all over the place I had a hard time keeping track of things and the parade of ‘quirky’ characters who were all quirk and no true substance. The flashbacks felt like they were plonked into the middle of the story to give context to Eleanor’s trauma and why she is the way she is, but it feels forced and disrupts the flow of the story – I often found myself flipping back to see where the story was before it got interrupted. I also didn’t quite understand the choice where Semple switches to write in the third person in the middle of the novel.

To be frank, Semple has a certain charm to her prose, but her main character is just so unlikeable that I found it very difficult to sympathise with Eleanor’s bad choices and bizarre behaviour. Like leaving her son alone while she runs off to chase her poetry teacher whom she left hanging after receiving a phone call, stealing a young mother’s car keys because it happened to have the same name engraved on it as the name of her estranged sister’s daughter, then trying to sneakily return them by dropping them into the school charity collection box but dropping her own keys into them instead. Oh, she also leaves her dog tied outside a grocery store and forgets all about it while she’s trying to track her husband down.

I suppose these are all meant to be ‘funny’, in a “look at the kooky,middle-aged white woman! Aren’t we all sort of like that on some days?” Uh, no. Eleanor is a danger to herself and her son, and it’s amazing that this is a character written as a mother. If I had a mom like that I’d check myself into child services. Timby is more responsible than you! Stop acting like a goddamn brat!

Her manic energy and the way her train wreck of thoughts are translated onto the pages is not endearing (the best way I can describe it would be how I imagined a dog would be like when chased after something and saw a butterfly. Like woof woof angry postman bark oh look blue flying thing wow). It’s infuriating. More than once I have felt like throttling Eleanor, and that’s saying something, wanting to throttle a fictional character. If Eleanor was a person I knew in real life, I wouldn’t go near her with a ten-foot pole.

In most books, flawed characters have a redemption arc, but Eleanor doesn’t seem to take anything away from her experiences. She’s broken, yes, but she doesn’t rise above her past, she simply throws herself headlong into the next chaotic mess with reckless abandon, selfishly screaming about how hurt she is and how broken she is, while not caring about what happens to people she claims to care about.

The ending was truly bizarre as well and was not at all satisfying after slogging over the book for three days. But for those who want to read the book, I’m not going to spoil it.

I don’t think there are bad books, simply people who aren’t meant to read them. And Today Will Be Different was simply not for me. But hey, don’t trust me: trust the glowing book reviews from established publications. I’m just a nobody with a blog.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.
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eslite: “World’s Coolest Bookstore” is Coming to Malaysia

As a self-professed bibliophile, bookstores are among my favourite haunts. They’re portals to magical places where the possibilities are endless – and thanks to brands like Book XCess and Kinokuniya, and indie stores like Tintabudi and LitBooks, they’ve become cool lifestyle hubs as well.

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Now, book lovers can rejoice as they’ll have another place to get lost in literature. Renowned Taiwanese bookstore eslite – known for creating the world’s first 24-hour bookstore – is set to open their first ever branch in Southeast Asia in 2022, right in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. Dubbed eslite spectrum, the venue will be more than just a bookstore: it aims to become a creative cultural venue offering a rich selection of books in various languages, music, design and hand-made goods , performing arts, themed restaurants and coffee shops, lifestyle brands and diverse cultural and creative brands from both countries.

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Founded in 1989, eslite is extremely popular in its native Taiwan, with over 38 stores across the island nation – and their cultural icon status has made it a must-visit for many book-loving tourists. Time Magazine and CNN christened the brand as “Asia’s Best Bookstore” and “World’s Coolest Bookstore”, with the eslite spectrum Songyan store in Taipei named among the 14 Coolest Department Stores in the World by CNN.

The Starhill

Such impressive credentials can only be equaled by an impressive venue – which is why Kuala Lumpur’s eslite spectrum will be located at The Starhill in Bukit Bintang. The partnership, which was cemented virtually between YTL Land & Development Bhd vice president Joseph Yeoh and eslite Group chairperson Mercy Wu, will see the 70,191-square-foot store becoming The Starhill’s anchor tenant, and will also include a street-fronting F&B outlet on the ground level right next to The Starhill Piazza, where creative events and programmes will be staged all year round. The flagship store will also feature a sweeping café terrace on Level 1 overlooking The Starhill Piazza fronting the bustling Jalan Bukit Bintang – perfect for patrons to gather, connect and people watch. An exclusive escalator is also strategically placed to bring shoppers directly from The Starhill’s new entrance atrium to eslite spectrum upstairs.

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Speaking during the signing of the tenancy agreement, Yeoh said that the partnership is a match made in heaven, as it is also in line with The Starhill’s plan to create KL’s ultimate premium social destination for all to celebrate literature,the arts, fashion, design, music, food and creative events.

“I believe this partnership can potentially be a catalyst for a deeper cultural exchange between Malaysia and Taiwan through retail experiences and a community-oriented store that reach a wider audience across all ages and demographics,” he said.

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Meanwhile, Wu said that as one of Southeast Asia’s top tourist destinations for Taiwan, Kuala Lumpur is well poised to promote exchange and interaction involving Asian publications and the cultural and creative content of the region. “We also wish to create more opportunities for cross-regional dialogue between Taiwanese and Malaysian writers and their works, and present readers with novel reading perspectives. Malaysia is an exciting country, with its own characteristic design aesthetics and cultural creativity, and we look forward to integrating the multi-ethnic and cross-cultural characteristics of Southeast Asia, and inspiring exciting diversified creativity in our store,” she adds.

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The retail and tourism sector might be experiencing a slowdown right now due to the pandemic, but this too, shall pass – and hopefully we’ll be able to enjoy the eslite spectrum when it opens in 2022.

Because I certainly won’t say no to more books!

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The ‘Death’ of the Physical Bookstore? – MPH to Close Multiple Outlets Across Malaysia

While the company has yet to make an official announcement, local bookstore chain MPH seems set to shutter multiple outlets this weekend (June 6, 2020). Netizens have posted photos of clearing out sales and empty shelves in several locations, including MyTOWN Cheras, JB City Square, Kinta City and MYdin MITC Melaka. More are expected to follow suit in the coming weeks.

MPH book store in Alamanda Putrajaya. Photo by Khairul hazim / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

MPH (an acronym for Methodist Publishing House – but this was later changed to ‘Malaysian’ Publishing House) has roots in Singapore, but became a wholly Malaysian-owned company in 2002. At its peak, it had over 29 stores in Malaysia and Singapore.

The current global pandemic is a difficult time for many businesses, including publishing – and we can expect the impacts to stretch into the near future. With less foot traffic and the convenience of online shopping, mome companies are going digital to stay relevant – and this seems to be what MPH is doing. In a statement provided to local news portal SAYS, the MPH group says it is upscaling to a more digital-centric model; hence the closure of non-performing retail outlets and the consolidation of resources. The pandemic may simply have accelerated this change.

For some time now, MPH, as well as some bookstore chains such as Times and Borders, have been struggling to keep afloat. In 2018, MPH closed down their OneUtama outlet, while Borders and Times shuttered their Penang and Citta Mall outlets, respectively. But you know what the surprising thing is? Malaysians are actually quite an avid book-buying bunch (according to this report by Picodi). Why then, is business bad? Is it really because more people are buying e-books, and physical stores are no longer relevant?

This is my perspective as a consumer. 

I spent a lot of time at MPH as a teenager – my mom would ‘drop’ me off for a few hours so I could read books while she went shopping, and I’ve always enjoyed their offerings. But over the years, I find myself frequenting their stores less and less – because I did not find it appealing anymore.

There are several bookstore chains in Malaysia, including MPH and the aforementioned Times and Borders. Borders did pretty well in the early to mid-2000s and expanded quickly, but it too suffered a gradual decline and is now left with only a few stores. But even so, you can’t say that there isn’t a market for books, because brands like Popular, Kinokuniya and Book XCess, are still doing pretty well. Why?

While Popular isn’t my favourite bookstore, I can see the appeal: they offer a vast selection of everything from academic books to fiction and non-fiction in all of Malaysia’s major languages (Malay, English and Chinese). Prices are fairly reasonable, and they have a presence in many malls, making Popular the go-to for the everyday Malaysian. Kinokuniya, a Japanese brand, is on the slightly higher end of the spectrum. This is where you go to if you want to look for more obscure or rarer titles and expensive volumes, or books imported from overseas.

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Finally, Book XCess (above) retails new books that were printed in excess by their publishers –  which is why they’re able to offer them at a much cheaper price. While most of the titles aren’t new, an average book sold at BookXCess costs 1/3 or 1/2 cheaper than regular bookstores. Store experience is another tenet that sets Book XCess apart – they are often cool places to hang out at,  making them a lifestyle destination. (blog post about their branch at Cyberjaya hereAnd then, of course, you have the independent bookstores which cater to a very niche audience, like Tintabudi, Fixi, Silverfish and LitBooks.

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(Photo) Tintabudi at the Zhongshan Building, Kuala Lumpur. 

When you talk about MPH, Borders and Times, however (and this is my personal opinion so I understand that some might not agree), I cannot name anything particularly special. They’re not cheaper, nor do they offer a better variety, nor do they have a particularly outstanding store or customer experience. Perhaps in the early days of the 2000s, they were popular (see what I did there lol), but since then, other brands have taken over (at least in terms of the brick and mortar space) – because MPH has not thought of a way to differentiate themselves from the crowd, and still relies on an old business model that is difficult to sustain (if you’re interested to read more about how the publishing industry works in Malaysia, here’s an insightful article from Eskenstrika). 

I won’t comment too much on the digital side of things, as I rarely buy books online, and unlike with physical stores (where you can see through things like closure/ foot traffic if a business is doing well), I don’t have a gauge as to how well their online book-selling is (although they do claim to be ‘Malaysia’s No.1 online bookstore’). But then again, all of MPH’s competitors are also online, the same brands it finds hard to compete with in the brick and mortar space (Popular, BookXCess, Kino, etc.). So unless their branding and service (delivery, ease of use, customer service) are outstanding, I think the same issues will remain. Of course, if they are going full force into the digital space with innovative solutions and offerings, perhaps they will be able to establish themselves as a leader in that niche (like Bookurve, BookDepository, Amazon).

While E-commerce and digital disruption has certainly forced many businesses to adapt their models to cater to ever-changing consumer demand, this article by CNBC suggests that people are still very much into printed books, and that demand for e-books has tapered off in recent times (due to a complex list of reasons). At the end of the day, I believe physical bookstores will still be here to stay, and that they can still be profitable. Taiwanese book chain Eslite is planning a massive store in Malaysia sometime in 2021, and what company in their right mind would open in a foreign country if the market did not have potential?

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review : Lotus by Lijia Zhang

Hey guys!

It’s Day 9 of the Movement Control Order here in Malaysia. Despite having more time on my hands, I haven’t been reading as much as I’d like to. My attention span is so short these days, it’s hard to concentrate on anything (gadgets are partly to blame). But enough about my poor reading habits – let’s talk about a book I finished recently – Lotus by Chinese author Lijia Zhang. Lotus is Zhang’s debut novel, and chronicles the life of a young prostitute, the eponymously-named Lotus, and the characters that come into her life.

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Synopsis 

The story opens in the bustling Chinese city of Shenzhen, where Lotus is nabbed by an anti vice squad on suspicion of being a ji (prostitute). She is rescued by Bing, a freelance photographer who has been documenting the lives of working girls as part of a photojournalism project. Initially suspicious of his intentions, Lotus begins to trust him more and agrees to be photographed for his project. A friendship starts to blossom, and we soon learn the reasons for Lotus’ involvement in the world of prostitution.

Like many migrants from rural China, Lotus came to the city in search of a better life, against her family’s wishes. Determined to put her younger brother Shadan through university, Lotus takes up a low paying job at a factory together with her cousin. After a factory accident kills her cousin, Lotus wanders into the city, blaming herself for her death. Ashamed to return to the village and with no other options, she gets into the sex trade.

Bing, who himself has a troubled past, finds himself falling more for the down-to-earth Lotus. The two eventually become lovers, and Lotus gives up her work in the hopes that Bing will marry her. But as Bing’s career soars after his photojournalism project gets picked up by news outlets, and he is offered a lucrative job offer a national newspaper, can their fragile relationship endure the challenges that are thrown against them? And is what Lotus feels love, or just longing for a stable life away from the streets, and a financially secure future for herself and her family?

Verdict 

Inspired by the tale of her grandmother, who was sold into a brothel in the 1930s, Lijia Zhang’s first fictional work is based on the academic work of two American researchers on the modern Chinese sex trade, as well as Zhang’s time volunteering at an NGO which helps working girls in China. The story is almost autobiographical, and readers are led into the ‘world’ of Lotus, which is very much rooted in real life.

The strength of the novel lies in its multidimensional characters, and Zhang skilfully peels back the layers of their narratives. There’s Little Jade, who was sold off by her parents due to poverty and forced into the sex trade; Mimi, who is in an abusive relationship and keeps getting abortions in the deluded belief that her boyfriend somehow loves her and Xia, an elderly ji who works as a prostitute to help provide for her sick son’s medical bills. They each have their own hopes and dreams, and they cling to them in hopes of a better future, despite how life has turned out for them.

The characters themselves are also used to highlight prevalent social issues in modern Chinese society, such as materialism and corruption, the negative impacts of modernisation, internal immigration, class struggles, and more. An example of this can be seen through Lotus herself. Disillusioned by a seductive dream of an easier life, she leaves her village only to find the bitter and harsh reality of living in the city. When her cousin dies, she hopes to get fair compensation, but is instead fired from the factory – leading her down the path of prostitution as a means of survival. Meanwhile Bing, as an up and coming photographer, has to deal with greasing up politicians and big shots despite knowing the extent of their corruption, just to climb the social and corporate ladder.

I actually really liked the complexity of Bing’s character, a man who is kind yet torn between his desire to love and a desire to make a name for himself after having been called a failure for much of his life. He is apparently based on the late Zhao Tielin, a Chinese photographer who lived among prostitutes in the Hainan slums. I actually went to look up his photos after finishing the novel, and they are both beautiful, sad and haunting. You can check them out here. 

I also enjoyed Zhang’s writing, which is easy to digest and peppered with prose. Chinese as a language is pretty far removed from English, and there are idioms or sayings that may be difficult to translate into English, or may feel somewhat stilted. In Lotus, however, they take on a melancholic, poetic quality. The beginning of each chapter opens with an idiom, and its characters also regularly talk in prose. When I was a kid I used to listen to many of these old sayings (from mom, or old wuxia films) not fully comprehending their meaning. Now that I’m older, they make so much sense, and I can truly appreciate how beautiful the language is. Eg : “Where water flows, a channel is formed” (meaning where there’s a will, there’s a way – but it sounds so much cooler in Chinese lol), or “Every river has its source, and every tree has its roots” (meaning that we all come from somewhere, and we should not forget our roots).

All in all, Lotus is an excellent novel that encapsulates the human spirit and our desire for a better life, but it’s also a novel about people finding their way in the world in the face of adversity, whilst also touching on socio-economic issues in China that are often swept under the rug.

Score: 7/10. 

 

**Currently reading: Indonesia Etc. Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani 

My Mini Library

Hey guys!

It’s Day 6 of the Restricted Movement Order in Malaysia. Officially, there are 8 more days to go –  but looking at the upward trend of cases, an extension might be imminent. 😦 I know I am luckier than most in that I have enough savings to tide me over should the RMO be prolonged, but there are many out there such as the homeless and the destitute who are in danger of falling through the cracks as governments scramble to control the spread of the virus. Aside from doing our part as good citizens, we should also help donate what we can to help frontliners such as charity workers and NGOs.

As for what I’ve been doing at home: I’ve been working on my articles, both for my main job as well as my side hustles. It’s a good thing I did them way ahead of time, because looking at how things are, it’ll be a while before I can go out to conduct any sort of interview.

It can be difficult to keep yourself disciplined when you’re ‘working’ from home (my workspace is literally two steps away from my bed) but so far I’ve been adhering to my routine – wakeup at around 8.30 am to 9, breakfast, and then start working by 10. I take a short break for lunch, and then I work until 5pm and wrap up for the day. In the evenings I either help my mom out in the kitchen, or I work out for half an hour. After dinner, I surf the net, read or write for the blog.

The good thing about not having to spend time in traffic is that I have more time to do the things I want. I recently sorted out some photos in my laptop and realised I never blogged about my book cabinet. I had it installed at the end of last year because my mom, a neat freak, was losing it over how many books I had (and kept buying). I had books all over the place; on a bookshelf in my room, in the cabinet downstairs, in giant containers and boxes. She gave me an ultimatum – either I got a bigger space to keep everything, or she’d throw them away. So, cabinet it was.

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It took a couple of days to set up (problem with parts and stuff) but the result was great. It’s harder to get to the books at the top though, so we put stuff we don’t normally take out often like the photo albums and some old magazines.

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N was still here last year (he’s now in the Phils due to job commitments) so he had no choice but to help me sort out my mountain of books lol. You gotta work for your board and lodging, bruh

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It took us several hours but we finally got everything nicely in place! Even had them sorted out according to category, so there’s like a section for all the comics, Asian literature, fantasy, historical fiction and horror. How do you sort your books? I know some people like to sort their books according to colour, or alphabetical order, or genre.

 

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My favourite shelf.

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If you see books that look like they’re in a less-than-stellar condition, they’re either a) second-hand books, or b) my favourites, because I like to reread books and they somehow end up in tatters lol.

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Asian literature.

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Another shelf in my room. The books ended up in the upper cabinets.

People have asked me if I’ve actually read ALL of the books I have. And no, I haven’t. My reading habits have gone down the drain ever since I started working, but I’ve been trying to get back into it these last couple of months, and I can proudly say I’ve finished at least one book a month in the last 3 months. Now, only several dozen to go…

 

 

 

Book Review: Timeline by Michael Crichton

I first read this as a tattered library copy, almost ten years ago, when I was still in college.Even back then, I could see why the paperback was dog-eared and well thumbed through, its spine full of creases. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but for many years, I was unable to find it in local bookstores since it’s not a new title, and reprints are harder to find. I was overjoyed when by chance, I found a copy at Book Xcess recently (I was going to the checkout counter and almost missed it).

Timeline is classic Crichton – clever, suspenseful and thrilling – and once you get going, it’s extremely hard to put down. If you love medieval European history and an action packed narrative involving people from the future being thrown into the past, then Timeline will keep you glued to its pages, and then some.

Synopsis 

A vacationing couple driving through the Arizona desert discover a wandering old man, who seems lost and incoherent. They bring him in to a local hospital, where it is discovered that he is an employee of a quantum tech company called ITC. However, he quickly succumbs to abnormalities in his blood vessels, and dies. On his body are detailed sketches of what look like floor plans for a monastery.

In southwest France, archaeology professor Edward Johnston heads a group of young archaeologists, studying the 14th-century towns of Castelgard and La Roque, under funding from the ITC. After an interview with a local reporter, the Professor, suspecting ITC of undermining their operations, travels to New Mexico to confront its CEO, Robert Doniger. During his absence, the professor’s students uncover disturbing artefacts in a sealed chamber at their excavation site – including a message from the professor supposedly written on a 600-year-old parchment, as well as his eyeglasses.

Four of the students – Andre, Chris, Kate and David – fly to ITC HQ to search for answers. There, they are informed that ITC has developed a quantum technology that allows for time travel, and that they need the group’s help to extricate the Professor, who is somehow stuck in the 14th century after travelling back there with a machine. 3 of them, Andre, Chris and Kate, return to the past with two guides, while David remains behind. Things quickly go awry once they arrive, with one of their guides being beheaded by a knight, and the other escaping back to the present, only for the grenade he pulled to detonate once he returned to ITC, destroying the laboratory. While the present day team scramble to repair the machines so the group will be able to come back home, Andre, Chris and Kate have less than 36 hours to find the professor before their batteries run out and they are trapped forever –  all while navigating a brutal time period where violence and power rule, and the slightest wrong move might mean death.

Verdict 

Like many of Crichton’s novels,Timeline is nicely paced and action packed; keeping the reader enthralled as to what comes next. Crichton’s novels usually follow a ‘formula’ – the stories typically start off by introducing a problem, or by highlighting that something has gone wrong. We see this in novels like Micro, which opens with people getting killed under mysterious circumstances (we later find out that they’re actually killer bots), and Jurassic Park, where an employee of InGen is brought with serious injuries from Lo Sa Raptor (we later find out = dinosaurs). Similarly, the lost and not-of-sound-mind employee the couple find in the desert sets the story up that not everything is going smoothly, and a shit storm is brewing.

Next, we’re introduced to the cast of characters. Like my favourite author Stephen King, Crichton’s protagonists often fall into a category, but instead of authors and writers (which King likes), they’re usually scientists and those in academia – but with athletic prowess (how else are they going to survive all the physical shit that’s going to be thrown at them?). I remember reading Micro and going ‘wow that’s convenient, that they’ve got all these characters that have just the right skill for a particular situation’. Timeline is no exception – but perhaps it is necessary to ensure that the characters have a higher fighting chance. (Imagine dropping me into the medieval era – the first thing I’d do is lose my glasses, and then stumble around blind, then get eviscerated by a noble. Probably).

There’s Andre, a researcher who is obsessed with the medieval era, and who (conveniently) knows how to joust, fight with a sword and a longbow, and speaks the local languages of the era. It seems he is made for medieval times – and jumps right into the fighting, with no hesitation of killing those who seek to harm them whatsoever. Kate, the architecture expert, is able to utilise her knowledge of the buildings to look for secret passages in the castle, helping the group to narrowly escape pursuit several times. She also has great reflexes and climbing prowess, enabling her to escape from dangerous situations. Chris, the comic relief, has the greatest character development, from a somewhat weak and whiny pretty boy to discovering a streak of bravery that lets him stay alive and also help his friends.

I really like how Timeline tries to make things seem more believable by incorporating aspects that most novelists would not think about. For example, I hate the fact that some books (and films) just drop their characters in the middle of another era and all the characters can speak the same language. Worse still, you have movies like Memoirs of a Geisha, where the actors are non-Japanese, and they all speak English in bad accents, lol. In Timeline, the predominant language used is Middle English, which is very different from the modern English we use today (reading the novel actually prompted me to go look up videos on Youtube), as well as languages like Occitan and Latin. To overcome this, the group have earpieces that automatically translate whatever is being said to modern English. But this doesn’t overcome the fact that some of the group are unable to speak in the language of that era, which proves to be a challenge when interacting with the medieval people they come across.

An interesting theme that is raised in the book is the accuracy of what is portrayed in history. What we know today of medieval times is largely based on what we have unearthed, in writing or records, but there is no sure way of capturing the way medieval people lived exactly, because so little of this history survived. Like the bones of dinosaurs, we’re able to guess as to how they probably looked like, but not how they behaved. Similarly, buildings and castles provide a very brief glimpse into medieval times, and we have certain records of things – but at the end of the day, where there is no concrete record, everything is mere speculation and subjectivity. The characters discover this when they time travel.

All in all, Timeline is a great science fiction-cum-action novel. If you love fast paced, action packed science fiction novels, and you like Michael Crichton’s works like Andromeda Strain, Micro, Jurassic Park and Sphere, Timeline provides a solid 8.5/10.

 

Book Review: The Lady Of The Rivers by Philippa Gregory

Most tales in history tell the stories of men, who ride to wars for gospel, glory and gold, or scheme and plot against their political rivals. Little is said of the women who lived in these times, except as ‘commodities’ – pawns to be married off to cement alliances, bring wealth into a family, or treated as baby-making machines. But historians and storytellers often forget that women are individuals of their own, with hopes, dreams, wants and desires beyond what has been laid out for them by men and people in positions of power. And even in misogynistic societies that try to control and suppress women even as they fear them, there are brave women who dare forge paths for themselves, grasping their fate in their hands to change their own fortunes.

It is for this reason that I enjoy reading Philippa Gregory‘s novels and her rich descriptions of events and life in medieval Britain. Gregory’s characters are colourful, passionate, and while we can only speculate to the person’s nature based on what happened in history, her highly romanticised and embellished accounts breathe life into them. In any case, I think it’s a great way to introduce lay readers to these extraordinary people, often female, who are otherwise forgotten as mere footnotes in history.

While most of us would know prominent figures such as Anne Boleyn or Margaret Tudor, (thanks to popular portrayal in modern media), there isn’t much about Jacquetta St Pol, despite her being a lady of importance in the court of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou during the Wars of the Roses.

Gregory’s Lady of the Rivers shines some light into this often overlooked figure.

Synopsis

Young Jacquetta is a lady of a noble Luxembourg household, whose family claims ancestry from the water goddess Melusina. She befriends Joan of Arc, held prisoner by her uncle, and who was later burned as a witch by English troops. This early encounter teaches Jacquetta the fate that awaits a woman who tries to overstep her role in a world of men. Even so, Jacquetta is gifted by the Sight, and is determined to make her own way in the world.

Three years later, Jacquetta marries John, the Duke of Bedford, who seeks to use her otherworldly ‘gifts’ to discover the secrets of alchemy. After his death, Jacquetta is left a wealthy widow. She falls in love with her husband’s squire, Richard Woodville – an honourable man, but poor. They get married in secret, much to the displeasure of the King, and are exiled from court after paying a heavy fine. Jacquetta gives birth to their first child, Elizabeth Woodville. Little do they know the future in store for her.

The couple is eventually forgiven and allowed back to court, where they rise in favour with the ruling house of Lancaster. Jacquetta and Richard Woodville are allies to Henry VI and his French bride Margaret of Anjou, Jacquetta’s kinswoman, but the royal couple become increasingly unpopular. No thanks to favouritism and the lavish of titles and land to select nobles, rivalry between the houses of Lancaster and York come to a head. Margaret of Anjou falls pregnant with the heir to the throne, although it is heavily implied that the baby was fathered by the court favourite Duke of Somerset. To make things worse, the king falls into a coma, and civil war breaks out. Jacquetta, her husband and their allies are now forced to navigate a dangerous minefield as the country descends into chaos.

Verdict 

The Lady of the Rivers is signature Gregory, woven around a central female character full of fiery passion and a refusal to go quietly into the night. Gregory’s protagonists are never shrinking violets, but actively working behind the scenes to secure their future and ensure the survival of their families and loved ones. As a character, Jacquetta seems to crave a quiet life surrounded by her husband and her children, but cannot resist a higher calling and is torn between her sense of loyalty for her household and doing what is right for the country. Jacquetta’s foresight does not give her much relief, as even though it is told as if she has the power to foresee certain events or what may come to pass, she is often powerless in doing anything to stop or change what is to come.

As usual, actual events in history are used as the basis for much of the novel, and it was a good entry point for me to find out more about the Plantagenets, the 300-year dynasty that came before the Tudors. Truth is stranger than fiction, and these historical accounts are juicier than Game of Thrones : there’s murder, treason, adultery, betrayal, war and savagery, kinsmen turning on kinsmen.

Gregory’s works often feel rushed at the ending, and this was no exception, ending almost abruptly – but all in all, The Lady of the Rivers was a solid read. I’d recommend picking one up if you’re interested to expand your knowledge on British medieval history (as well as her other works), although they shouldn’t be used as factual basis.

Score: 7/10

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Japan is a fascinating place, but it is also one that can seem rather… unusual to outsiders.

Like how they’re insane sticklers for punctuality (the management of a train service issued an official apology ‘for the inconvenience caused’, after the train departed 20 seconds early). Or their crazy dedication to order and their need for conformity (there’s a Japanese saying that goes ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down’. So much for individuality).

Conversely, the flipside to this restraint and rigidity is pretty extreme, which is why you have things like hikikomori (a social phenomena where mostly youngsters cut off any contact from the outside world, becoming ‘hermits’) and high suicide rates.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is a reflection of this duality.

I came across the book while browsing at Kinokuniya, and attracted by its cover design (in baby blue, canary yellow and bubblegum pink), flipped it open. I remained rooted on the spot for an hour and a half. The book itself was not a long read, but it was certainly one of the more interesting stories I’ve read in a long time – a tongue-in-cheek look at Japanese society and its hypocrisies and machinations.

Synopsis

Keiko Fukuhara has been a convenience store worker for over 18 years, and is by society’s standards, an oddball. At 36, she is single, unmarried and has no ambitions to climb the career ladder, content in the monotony at the store. In fact, she thrives in the everyday tasks of arranging perfect displays to maximise sales, shouting out Irrashaimase! to customers, anticipating their every move and reflecting that efficiently to cater to their needs. She calls herself a ‘cog’ in the machinery of the store.

As we delve deeper into the story, which is told through Keiko’s eyes, we learn that Keiko is not quite ‘normal’, and that she herself is aware of this, albeit in a detached kind of way. Like the alien that has learned to blend itself in with the rest of the crowd by putting on a mask, she has learned to hide her thoughts, although at times she still gets confused with how she should act. It is rather eerie to read the degree of self-awareness when she narrates her mimicking the way her colleagues speak and dress, and how it changes with every new person that comes to work at the store (I’m reminded of the film Body Snatchers). While discussing things with groups of people, she ‘carefully arranges her facial expressions’, as it she herself is incapable of showing her natural emotions.

Keiko also reveals psychopathic tendencies, as recalled in an episode from her childhood when she and her classmates find a dead budgie. While all the other children were crying, she snatches up the bird and tells her mother that they should eat it, mortifying her mother. At a school fight, when two boys were fighting and the rest of the class were screaming for them to stop, Keiko grabs a chair and hits one of the boys over the head – her reasoning being ‘they wanted them to stop’. Even more disturbing is the casual way she thinks of stabbing her sister’s son when the pair come visiting, because he wouldn’t ‘shut up’. Of course, Keiko has learned from her childhood experiences to hide these thoughts and not act upon them, because it isn’t ‘normal’. She does not seem to be bothered by it though – it is simply the best way to go about life efficiently.

In a sense, her convenience store job has given her a purpose and a measure of ‘normalcy’. But it seems everyone in Keiko’s life, from her colleagues to her well-meaning family, do not want to leave her alone – intent in making her ‘conform’. They bug her about dating, about marriage, about finding a new ‘real’ job, etc. and as time passes, she finds it harder and harder to justify and to fit in.

At the store, she meets Shihara, a misogynistic social outcast unable to hold down a job. Despite working at the convenience store, he despises it and looks down on his colleagues as well as the manager, and finally gets fired for slacking off and also stalking female customers. Shihara rages against how society wants people to conform, telling Keiko how “Strong men who bring home a good catch have women flocking around them, and they marry the prettiest girls in the village. Men who don’t join in the hunt, or who are too weak to be of any use even if they try, are despised.” But while Keiko seeks her form of ‘normalcy’ in her convenience store job, Shihara wants nothing more than to loaf about and hide away from the pressure of it all. The two strike up an unlikely deal in order to try to get everyone off their backs – by moving in together.

Verdict

Like the convenience store where most of the story happens, everything seems bathed in an artificial, fluorescent light. The conversations sound unreal, plasticky, but it works well with the overall tone of the story and the character who, as the story has established, is incapable of feeling and appearing normal at times. But in a way, you can’t help rooting for Keiko. I think despite how the character is and her complete lack of empathy and feeling, most people have felt like Keiko – she just wants to live life her own way, no matter how different it may be to others. And who are we to deprive other people of such a right, if they aren’t harming anyone?

Modern fiction is so mired in morality and social justice themes that it can get rather preachy. Which is why, to me, Convenience Store Woman was such a refreshing read. Despite Keiko’s quirks and odd behaviour, I never felt that the author was judgmental. In fact, I felt that Keiko had a right to her version of normalcy and happiness… like from a job at the convenience store.